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Lakes and Prairies Synod School draws more than 600

Weeklong Synod School puts successful 65th year into the books

by Duane Sweep | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Synod School attendees fill Schaller Chapel on the Buena Vista University campus for opening-night worship Sunday, July 21. (Photo by Duane Sweep)

STORM LAKE, Iowa — Marking its 65th year, this year’s iteration of Synod School, the midsummer ministry of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, drew more than 600 for a week of worship, classes, fun and fellowship on the campus of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa.

Synod School 2018, which ran July 21-27, featured more than 70 classes, convocation addresses by Jason Brian Santos, worship services led by Jana Childers, and the music leadership of Hans Peterson and Nelson Morlock.

While participation in Synod School is usually measured by the number of participants from a presbytery, this year a single church contributed 29 attendees. “There were 29 of us, counting me,” noted Lance Loveall, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Loveall said the group included “four kids, 10 youth and 15 adults.” Loveall and his wife, Paige, “have been talking about Synod School since we started coming seven years ago,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Grandparents started bringing grandchildren. “In the meantime the grandparents that came spread the word of how awesome Synod School is and recruited people of that generation as well,” Loveall noted. This year’s group include 16 first-timers, including one man who attended for the first time with his wife and grandson, another grandchild with his grandmother, a couple, a single adult, and four families with children.

“To the person, everyone reported having a good time,” Loveall wrote. “Whether it was a class or classes, the worship, or [Santos], or a combination thereof, they all reported having fun, learning, being spired, having thoughts about our congregation, and having wonderful conversations about spiritual development and the church.”

Jason Brian Santos delivers one of five convocation addresses at Synod School, addressing what it means to be an intergenerational Sabbath people. (Photo by Duane Sweep)

Through five convocation addresses, Santos, who is the mission coordinator for Christian formation at the Presbyterian Mission Agency in Louisville, explored what it means to be an intergenerational “Sabbath people.”

Addressing the way the church connects with youth, Santos asked, “Are we entertaining our youth or engaging them in Christian practice?” And commenting on church as entertainment, and children’s time and youth activities, Santos said, “If that’s all we have, we have failed.”

Santos said, “We have to put action into our words.” The connection with youth is gained through community, shared time and experiences together. “We often think our memories are our own,” Santos said, but added, “All of our memories are connected to our communal environment.”

That’s true, too, for the community of the church. “At the end of the day, sometimes we put too much emphasis on the sermon. … Is it so cerebral that we’ve lost the art of connecting?” Santos asked. “We no longer live in a pastoral model of the church.”

The 70-plus classes ranged from “Spiritual Formation” to “Yoga: Vacation Style,” and “Immigration: Economics, Ethics & Ethnics” to “The Coming of the Internet & the Loss of Everything Else.” Classes also varied from the “Introduction to the New Testament” to “Sheldon Cooper on Relationships,” and the “Doctrine of Discovery” to “Outdoor Cooking.”

Classes even included “Laughter as a Spiritual Discipline,” a class taught by Tom Willadsen, a Presbyterian minister, humor columnist and author of “OMG! LOL! Faith and Laughter.” Willadsen is also well known at Synod School for “Caramel Roll Day,” which usually takes place on Thursday.

In some past years, Willadsen would take plates of caramel rolls from the serving pans and deliver them throughout the dining hall. But in 2016, Willadsen noted, “[T]he food handling guidelines changed, and one could not take food from the line and deliver it without using gloves and tongs.”

This year, on “Caramel Roll Day,” Willadsen greeted breakfast diners at the door with a paper plate smeared with the “sweet, sticky goodness” of a devoured caramel roll. But Willadsen’s desire to serve the delicious delight did come to pass. “I was pleased,” he noted. “There were a lot left about 10 minutes before breakfast ended, so they let me put on gloves and deliver them until we ran out.”

Childers, dean of the seminary and vice president for academic affairs at San Francisco Theological Seminary, led evening worship Sunday through Thursday. A Presbyterian minister, Childers is a popular conference speaker, preaching often in national and international settings. She has also been featured on the Hallmark Channel’s “Great Preachers” series.

Dancers were an integral part of worship at Synod School. (Photo by Duane Sweep)

Dance also played a role in worship as Gina Penn, who discovered at age 13 she could dance as a form of worship, served as the School’s artist in residence and led dancers during evening worship.

The success of Synod School has continued through another year, and plans are already in the works for Synod School 2019 — planned again during the last full week of July, July 21-26, 2019 — and at the same location.

Next year’s convocation speaker has already been chosen — Deidre “Dede” Johnston, professor of communication at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, who conducts research in the area of global communication and cross-cultural happiness. Johnston also led the development of a new peace and justice studies minor at the college, and was involved in curriculum development for women’s studies and American ethnic studies.

Shawna Bowman, associate director of field education and experiential education at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, will lead next year’s evening worship. Bowman is also an artist and pastor at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago and co-found of Creation Lab, an art collective.

And there are others making plans for next year’s Synod School. Loveall noted that people in his congregation are already thinking about it. “People are already talking about next year … Some people are already motivated to attend for the first time and many people are ready to go back.”


Duane Sweep is director of communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. From time to time he contributes to Presbyterian News Service.

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